Fight Covid, Fight Capitalism! (Editorial 37)

The Government promised that they were doing everything in their power to save the festive Christmas and New Year period from another sudden lockdown, and yet 2021 began with scientists announcing we are going through the most dangerous phase yet.

Boris Johnson and his hapless Ministers are reminiscent of an army in constant retreat. Every ‘battle’ against the virus is lost, thanks to the strategic blundering of Britain’s Generals, forcing a sudden and demoralising rout. First just in one area of the Front, and no reinforcements come before another point collapses, and the whole line is forced back.

For these defeats they blame the ordinary ranks for their indiscipline, ‘not following the rules’, etc. All the while the High Command – MPs, Downing Street mandarins, the Prime Minister and his father – flex and break the rules as they please.

With a new strain of the coronavirus now spreading throughout the UK, having been incubated here in the perfect conditions cultivated by the regular cycle of lockdown-reopen-resurgence-lockdown again, the Government, MPs, bourgeois press et al warn of the need for every Briton to be personally vigilant.

The only thing that destroys a good army quicker than a better army is a bad General. No amount of drills or courage can save a force led by vacillating, self-interested, incompetent commanders. The UK Government’s disastrous pandemic planning – which Scotland is tethered to, by the Union and by the ‘Four Nations’ approach endorsed by the Scottish Government – has led us into encirclement, where the NHS and millions of ground-down, weary workers contemplate a desperate last stand.

Poverty of Lockdown

In her January 13th update on lockdown measures, the First Minister admitted that the NHS could be “overwhelmed” in a matter of weeks due to the rapid spread of the new coronavirus strain. While hospitals and ITUs teeter on the edge, there are clear signs that healthcare workers already are overwhelmed.

80% of nurses are reported to skip meals due to long and intensive work, with over a third surviving on one meal a day. Overworked and stressed, absence rates have climbed to the point of a staffing crisis in the health service. Nurses, teachers and other public sector workers are frequently asked to return to work before they are fully recovered due to the chronic problem.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran, and NHS Lanarkshire are already over their capacity for COVID-19 patients early in 2021, and the emergency field hospital ‘NHS Louisa Jordan’ may not be able to provide adequate extra capacity due to the understaffing crisis.

Feeling “burned-out and undervalued”, despite tabloid press clapping campaigns and the Scottish Government’s one-off £500 ‘bonus’, demand for strike action is growing. The SNP speaks of its desire to reward frontline staff with a ‘fair’ pay rise, but negotiations are fraught. There must be no weasel-words about putting this off until it’s all over: NHS and other frontline workers deserve an immediate pay increase of at least 15% and have every right to strike to win it.

Poverty and inequality has been increasing, with 1 in 5 in Scotland now classed as below the poverty line. Those least well off have suffered the worst during the pandemic, especially as imposed lockdowns are often not met with corresponding support. Plenty of money is available to bail out businesses and underwrite their profits, but unemployed workers and social security claimants are left to turn to charity, as the surge in use of foodbanks plainly shows.

The Dickensian conditions on the rise across the UK contrast strongly with the trillions added to the wealth of the super-rich in 2020.

Additionally, the estrangement of personal relationships, loneliness and lethargy carried in the wake of each lockdown has taken its toll on the mental health of millions. Without access to other forms of treatment or relief, over six million people in England are now prescribed antidepressants.

Discontent also grows among teachers, as the government prioritises keeping schools open. Teachers protest that this policy should not be pursued ‘at all costs’ and are keenly aware that the reasoning behind this policy has less to do with keeping kids in school for their own benefit, but rather to act as a babysitting service for workers so that profits continue to be made.

Teachers’ union EIS has balloted its members in each local authority over disputing the increased stress and workload, and inadequate pandemic-control and safety measures the majority of teachers face at work. With the same conditions present all across Scotland, however, the EIS leadership are merely dragging their heels over this dispute by balloting each council separately.

While most teachers will have been somewhat relieved that schools have been closed through January, and perhaps longer, the rollout of remote learning has been chaotic. Workers need their unions to protect them from violations of working-time agreements and unreasonable demands all the more when asked to begin working from home. EIS has successfully won disputes with the Scottish Government before by taking national strike action and must be prepared to do it again.

Brexit meant Brexit

As well as starting 2021 in a third national lockdown, January marked the beginning of the UK’s new post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. The last-minute patch-up agreed by the European and British negotiators showed that Theresa May’s bold assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal” had decisively transformed into “any deal is better than no deal” under Boris Johnson, despite all his bluster.

The “oven-ready” deal turned out to be another lie, as around 80% of the UK economy is not even covered by the new trading relationship, likely to be worked out in the years ahead. Nor could Johnson and the Tories deliver on their promise that Brexit would mean less red tape – businesses have complained about bureaucratic barriers and disruptions for weeks – or May’s pledge that “no British Prime Minister could accept” a trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland – one now effectively exists.

The fishing industry, often lauded by Brexiteers as the main beneficiary of their cause, has also been hit hard by the Tory swindle. Numerous fishing companies have warned that they are weeks or days away from going out of business due to not being able to get their produce to the EU market.

Johnson may boast that he “got Brexit done” but the crisis is far from over. As we explained previously, the British bourgeois class did not want Brexit. Their economic and political interests were still very much aligned with staying in the EU, being the main market for British banks and capitalists, and a “bosses’ club” of European ruling classes capable of rivalling the US, Russia and China.

With the Tory party dominated by “swivel-eyed loons”, opportunists and charlatans, and British society in a deep crisis, Brexit was foisted upon the bourgeoisie, who struggle to maintain their hold over their own party. Cast adrift on the world market without the relative protection of the EU cartel, British capitalists will be forced to find their competitive advantage.

This can only mean attacks on the working class, intensifying exploitation and deepening the social crisis. In turn, this will provoke a backlash the likes of which the bourgeoisie is poorly prepared for.

Scotland and Europe

As is well known, the SNP opposed Brexit along with a majority of Scottish voters. While it is of course a sign of the “democratic deficit” within the United Kingdom that Scotland has left the EU against the popular will, the SNP leaders have attempted to tie the question of re-joining the EU directly with the question of Scottish independence.

In opposing the deal at Westminster – which is commendable given Keir Starmer’s pathetic support for the Tories – the SNP’s Ian Blackford touted the absurd lie that there is now an “empty seat” in the EU left to be filled by an independent Scotland.

The notion that there is now a gap to be filled at the highest level of the EU following Britain’s departure, and the EU leaders are keeping the seat warm is risible. Despite the window-dressing of the European Parliament, Commission and so on, the EU fundamentally remains an inter-governmental alliance dominated by the most powerful European countries (and their respective ruling classes).

Scotland may seek to re-join the EU, but it would only be on terms agreeable to France and Germany, who themselves are often at differences over EU policy and expansion of the bloc. Sentimentality about “leaving the light on” and “Scotland is European” will only get an independent Scottish Government so far with the EU, which the SNP leaders know well enough.

Just as the UK must now make “reforms” to make itself competitive on the world market, an independent Scotland on the basis of capitalism would mean the same thing, inside or outside the EU.

By making the EU the central grievance of the Independence cause, the SNP leaders are putting the question in terms that are acceptable to the capitalist class. The Growth Commission report, compiled by ex-bankers and corporate lobbyists, and the insistence of a legal-constitutional path to Independence via Section 30 are similarly intended to appeal to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

The working-class majority in favour of independence has different priorities. To them, independence is a vote against austerity, inequality, injustice and all the failures of capitalist society. It is a rejection of Tories, Liberals and the whole rotten establishment. Parallel to the fight for national self-determination is the struggle for the working class, which must necessarily break through the limits of bourgeois law and smash bourgeois institutions.

The class contradictions of the independence movement and the SNP is what gives rise to contradiction between the grassroots who demand a radical break with the UK, and the leaders who insist upon a cautious approach. The rival factions of the SNP bigwigs, broadly aligned with either Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond, though they appear to have a different approach, in fact stand on the same fundamental basis of respecting the UK constitution and protecting capitalists’ profits.

Lessons of Catalonia

The Catalan self-determination referendum in October 2017 is an example to many in the Scottish independence movement, who feel a particular affinity for the struggle for the Catalan Republic against a chauvinistic, authoritarian Spanish state.

Masses of people, including a significant part of the working class, intervened directly in the course of events in 2017, defending the democratic vote from Spanish state repression. Committees for the Defence of the Republic were established in towns and neighbourhoods across the region and Spanish state authorities were driven out of villages and blocked by mass protests. Students and workers joined calls for a General Strike in defence of democratic rights.

The movement took on an insurrectionary character, directly challenging the post-Franco 1978 regime and calling into question the role the pro-independence Generalitat (Catalan government) would play.

Far from taking the struggle forward, however, the bourgeois nationalist leadership tried to roll back the movement, appealing for calm and ultimately surrendering to Madrid. In fact, they – the centre-right PDeCAT, centre-left ERC and non-party Catalan National Assembly (ANC) – had never intended to go so far as actually having the vote.

Rather, the Generalitat had hoped that their calling of the referendum and the culminating repression would provoke a democratic outrage, the moral force of which would make the right-wing PP government in Madrid concede to a legally negotiated solution, guaranteed by the EU.

Instead of this, the masses pushed for their own guarantee of democracy, which was to take power into their own hands. Contrary to the Generalitat’s hopes, the EU intervened on the side of Spain, condemning the attempted referendum as a breach of the Spanish constitution. Thus, at the decisive moment, the Catalan government abandoned the Republic and were thus subject to repression and exile.

The lessons to be drawn are clear. For bourgeois nationalists like the SNP leaders, it is a cautionary tale against gambling on playing outside the limits of constitutionality, and the danger of arousing a broad layer of the working class who will push beyond those limits. Sturgeon and the party bosses are so hesitant to even discuss a ‘Plan B’ for independence for fear of being pushed into the same situation the Generalitat found itself in.

For the working class, the example of the Catalan movement shows that only a revolutionary struggle – not moralistic or legalistic appeals, or the European Commission – can guarantee democracy in the face of intransigent ruling class opposition to self-determination. The bourgeoisie cannot be trusted to lead such a struggle.

Indy in 2021-25?

Much has been touted for what may happen in 2021. Sturgeon and the Scottish Government insist that the Tories’ refusal to grant a Section 30 order for a referendum is “unsustainable” and will inevitably lead to them being “swept away”. ‘How?’ is the question on everybody’s mind, but she has no answer. Like the Catalan Generalitat’s plan to bring Spain to the negotiating table, it is based on sincere hopes and nothing else.

It has also been suggested that the Tories may try some form of ‘trick’ referendum, with either the ballot question or voter franchise somehow rigged to give the impression that there is no democratic majority for Independence. This is not really necessary and a big risk, however, as highlighted by George Osbourne in a recent editorial for the Evening Standard, where he insists Boris ‘just say no’.

Sturgeon has ruled out a referendum this year, postponing the idea indefinitely, though with the vague notion that it should be within the first half of the next Scottish Parliament term (i.e., 2022 or 2023). This has not stopped the SNP from launching another ‘taskforce’ to allegedly prepare and ‘fire up’ the movement – an announcement that fell flat with a movement that is beginning to think it is being taken for granted.

The situation is pregnant with possibility, despite the apparent impasse. Independence is more popular than ever, people are becoming impatient, they know the Tories are going on the counter-offensive and they want the SNP to do something. This pressure could force the party to act, like holding an “illegal” Catalonia-style referendum or attempting to negotiate independence, or just further stoke the crisis within the SNP.

If there is no movement on this front, then perhaps there could be a transformation of the movement outside the SNP, through mass organisations like All Under One Banner.

The third possibility is that the impasse remains unsolved, and the movement stagnates for another year or two. There may be Tory provocations and more false starts, but with the SNP leaders unable to point a way forward and if the working class does not intervene, we’ll start 2022 in the same position as now.

Time will not stand still, however. Though the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have many feeling like their personal lives have been put on hold, the world rolls from one crisis to the next in a series of dramatic events. The subterranean changes in the consciousness of the masses occur every day, as capitalism reveals itself to be “horror without end”, in the words of Lenin.

“When will all this end?” is on the minds of billions of people. But there is no end to the misery of capitalism without the working class coming to power, and the victory of Socialism.

We at Revolution set ourselves the task of building the Marxist tendency capable of pointing out the path to victory, and we ask all dedicated revolutionaries to join us.

by Shaun Morris